Junkyard Rancher: Automotive wrangler scraps for a living

  • A stack of leaf springs

    Cindy Wehling
  • A rack of motor pulleys

    Cindy Wehling
  • Alan Morris near a mound of baled metal at his JY Ranch

    Cindy Wehling

"Well buddy when I die, throw my body in the back, and drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac." - Bruce Springsteen

CARBONDALE, Colo. - Three phones are ringing in the office of the J-Y Ranch. A woman follows me in the door. "Have you got a window motor for a Jeep Cherokee?" she's already asking. "What year?" the proprietor shoots back. "What side?" He seems to know where to find it, but that makes sense: Alan Morris has been running the J-Y for 20 years.

Shelves of parts dominate his office, all labeled: carburetors for "76 Accords, taillights for GMC pickups, even the windshield wiper switch I needed 10 years ago for a 1977 Chevy Malibu. The J-Y - for Junk Yard - Ranch is aptly named since old cars rest where cows once flopped; vehicles are slouched in rows or piled in stacks of rusted metal at the mouth of Cattle Creek. If Bruce Springsteen were to call this junkyard a Cadillac ranch, then Alan Morris would be head wrangler.

Morris, 53, looks like a beefy Mickey Rooney. After four phone calls, he has time for a walk to the car-crusher. Meanwhile, a crane equipped with a magnet is noisily loading trucks with iron from his scrap mill as workers pack old cars with appliances and other mixed metals. Morris sends stuffed and crushed cars for recycling to a "minimill" (see sidebar linked at end of article).

One week last spring, Morris shipped a truckload of nine stuffed cars weighing a groaning 37,000 pounds. Each year the ranch sends 2,500 tons of scrap metal for recycling, accounting for half Morris' profits. The other half comes from selling car parts, mostly stored in a cavernous, corrugated metal warehouse. Each axle, differential or steering column is tagged with a reference number filed in the office. No computers. "I get pissed off when I go in a store and see a guy hiding behind a computer," Morris rails. "They're a terrible crutch."

As a kid, Morris hung out at Charlie Hopkins' Junkyard in nearby Glenwood Springs. Morris and his buddies would sneak up the draw behind the junkyard, steal a tire, then sell it back. "We'd get ice cream for three guys with one tire," Morris says. As the boys grew older, they began buying parts from Hopkins. "He used to tell me: "You should get in the junk business, you should get in the junk business." "''''Hopkins died in 1974; in March of the same year Morris got into the junk business.

Back then, Morris says, he was also a welder. "But the cars just grew up out of the dirt. I lived in town and every day I'd come to work in the morning and there'd be eight or 10 cars in front. I decided to stop welding and crush the cars that kept appearing." By May 1974, the price of scrap metal had gone up 500 percent, and Morris paid off half his debt. The price of scrap hasn't been that high since.

We visit the shop, which is also corrugated metal and shaped like an airplane hangar. It makes me think of a coroner's lab, where car autopsies offer up catalytic converters instead of kidneys. For heat, the shop furnace runs on waste oil from cars, some 3,000 gallons a year. A fan keeps the hot air moving and is his only heating bill.

I notice a smashed Chevy on blocks, half-full of scrap metal. "They were already stuffing the car when a guy tried the ignition and it started up. So we're gonna snag the engine," Morris says.

He shows off a tin baler outside his shop that looks like Rube Goldberg built it: If the Tin Man walked into it, he'd come out shaped like a box. I ask how he put it together. "Just out of a bunch of stuff," he says. As he was building it, he made promises to people who needed tin sheet scraps baled, but got backlogged before he had finished the machine. Then he had to abandon construction and buy one. A tin baler might be hard for most people to find, but Morris has a mental inventory of Colorado junk. "I remembered this yard in Fort Collins where I'd seen another one about 10 years before. So I leased it and ended up buying it."

On the way back to the office, Morris picks up a tool buried in the dirt. He can't resist: It's junk but usable. Back in the office, he says, "I've had some luck, but I've also made luck. I've always worked hard. And I believe my workers should be a good team. I never ask my guys to do anything I wouldn't do myself."

Morris' walkie-talkie squawks: "Anybody called me?" a voice asks.

"You don't want to know what he called you!" Morris yells into the receiver, grinning. The static continues, but there's no time for conversation anyway; a man just walked in in search of a hood for a bashed-up Ford.

Auden Schendler is a former HCN intern and English teacher who works as an outdoor educator in western Colorado.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

- Recyclers challenge Big Steel

High Country News Classifieds